Can we read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles now without seeing parallels in India?
When the iconic British writer Thomas Hardy, whose 85th death anniversary fell on January 11, first published Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 1891, he was lampooned by sections of British society unable to stomach his scathing criticism of Victorian attitudes towards women. Not least of all, several Britons were outraged by Hardy’s view of his heroine, which he stated in the title itself. The title of the first edition was Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. As per Victorian mores, a woman like Tess who loses her virginity before marriage could not be pure. That she had been raped was beside the point.
That Hardy’s classic remains relevant in today’s India is as irrefutable as it is depressing, especially in the wake of the brutal gang rape that shocked the nation in December. Alec’s pursuit of the poor, naïve Tess is as objectionable as any instance of eve-teasing. His rape is well planned, and his belief that he can get away with it, which stems from his sense of superiority as a man and that, too, from the upper-class, all too familiar. Just as recognisable is the attitude of Angel, the man Tess loves. Angel confesses to Tess that he was once involved with an older woman but when Tess, emboldened by the confession, reveals that she is no longer a virgin, because of what happened with Alec, he is so appalled that he spends their wedding night alone on a couch. Unable to reconcile himself to Tess’s loss of virginity before marriage, he separates from her soon thereafter. Such a double standard, with regard to sexual mores, can be found all over India.
In his preface to the fifth and later editions of Tess, Hardy addressed his critics by quoting from the letters the great German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, best known for his play Faust: “They are those who seek only their own ideas in a representation, and prize that which should be as higher than what is…As soon as I observe that any one, when judging of poetical representations, considers anything more important than the inner Necessity and Truth, I have done with him.”
The clash between the normative or what should be and the realistic or what is remains at the heart of all art. Given the conformist nature of our society, this conflict is especially relevant for an Indian artist. As successive Bollywood filmmakers have shown, there is great profit to be made in placing yourself on the normative side of the divide. Most recently, the likes of Ekta Kapoor and Karan Johar have overhauled this formula successfully by giving the normative a bold, modern look. A devout realist like Hardy would have balked at something like that.
That said, Tess of the d’Urbervilles is more than a mere representation of reality. It is also a damning indictment of the dominant forces of its times. As Marxist critic Raymond Williams has pointed out Tess is not an ignorant peasant. She is a school-educated young woman who seeks a good life that includes a relationship based on love. She is defeated in her bid to do so by the forces most threatened by her aspirations — the landed gentry manifest in Alec, the middle-class prudishness represented by Angel, and the morality of the times. Needless to say, manifestations of these forces exist in India today, as do the numerous anonymous Tesses seeking better lives through education and enterprise.
Hardy was more passionate about Tess than any other character he invented. He doesn’t simply dub her ‘pure’. He also prefaces the novel with Shakespeare’s words from The Two Gentlemen of Verona: ‘Poor wounded name! My bosom as a bed/Shall lodge thee.’ It is obvious from this sentiment that Hardy saw his role as more than faithfully translating Tess to the written page. Rather, he envisioned himself as her champion and advocate, and by extension the champion and advocate of the legions of real-life Tesses of his time. That he cared so passionately about his character allowed him to invent her beguilingly and went a long way towards making Tess of the d’Urbervilles his greatest novel.
Yet, for all its greatness, I cannot read Tess of the d’Urbervilles in the beginning of 2013 without being saddened by how relevant it is in today’s India. The Delhi gang rape in December has opened up a groundswell of revulsion. Let us hope that this results in a substantial and lasting change in attitude, ushering in an era where we Indians may read Hardy’s novel the way his fellow Britons read it — as a classic of an era long past.